Consider the Spirit

May 28, 2023
Acts 2:1-21; Exodus 19:9-11, 14-15a, 16-19

As we consider the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost today, I want to start by traveling back in time – way back for us – and way back in time even for those gathered together in the Acts text.

We are going back to the time of the stories of the Israelites in the wilderness – wandering and wondering what is to become of them as they transition from a life of captivity in Egypt to life as an independent community.

The particular story I want to take us back to is recorded in the book of Exodus in Chapter 19 – where we find the community camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Their leader, Moses, has been going back and forth between the mountain top where God speaks with him, to the valley where the people are camped. Moses acts as a mediator between the two parties – receiving mountain top wisdom from God, coming down and sharing it with the people, then carrying the people’s responses back up to the mountain and sharing them with God. One particular exchange goes like this – I’ll read some select verses between 9-19:

Exodus 19:9-11, 14-15a, 16-19

God said to Moses, “I will come to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they will always have faith in you.” Then Moses reported the people’s response. God said, “Go to the people and tell them to make themselves holy, today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothing and hold themselves in readiness for the third day, for on the third day God will descend from the mountain of Sinai in the sight of the people.

Moses came down from the mountain to the people. He sanctified them, and they washed their clothes. Moses said, “Prepare yourselves.”

On the third day, when morning came, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud settled over the mountain. Then there was such a loud trumpet blast that all the people trembled in their camp. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they huddled together at the base of the mountain. The mountain of Sinai was shrouded in smoke, for God had descended in the form of fire. The plumes rose like smoke from a furnace, and the mountain quaked violently. Louder and louder came the trumpet. Moses spoke out, and God answered with peals of thunder.

It is through this exchange, and several others that God gifts the oral (spoken) Torah to the people of Israel. The Torah in written form is what we would call the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Pentateuch) – the word Torah can also refer to the entire collection of Hebrew scriptures – the law, the prophets, and the writings or wisdom literature. Torah in the broadest sense of the word is God’s teachings and wisdom revealed as guidance for human life.

Why am I starting a Pentecost sermon with all of this? Because, at the beginning of the story in Acts that we read and celebrate today, we find that Jewish people have gathered together from far and wide. The reason people have gathered from far and wide on this day is to celebrate the Festival of Weeks – Shavuot – a Jewish festival that happens every year on the 50th day after Passover – hence the term Pentecost. It is on one hand a harvest festival in which an offering of the grain harvest is presented to God in thanksgiving for the full harvest. On the other hand, it is a festival that also celebrates the gift of Torah to Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

On the day of Pentecost the community has gathered together to celebrate the revelation of God’s wisdom to the world and into the midst of this celebration the Spirit comes down in a loud rushing of wind and flames – almost an echo of the clouds, lightning, and rumbling ground through which God communicated with Moses and the people in the wilderness. It appears the Holy likes to make its presence known.

Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

This is an awe-some – wild – experience! One that New Testament Scholar Frank Crouch suggests we have tamed far too much over the years:

“The history of art and imagination has left us a paltry legacy of depicting the narrative tumult of this story. (Do a Google Image search for “Pentecost” and you’ll see.) Art history mainly leaves us with small, polite tongues of fire dancing through a room or resting as unobtrusively as possible (for fire) upon the heads of people calmly sitting in their places. There seems to be little that would draw a crowd of onlookers or invoke much more of a summation than a simple, “That was weird” before observers turn to what’s next. It’s like a Facebook post or viral video that is quickly forgotten rather than a story whose impact and possibilities endure after 2,000 years.”

When the Spirit comes down in rushing wind and flames at Pentecost – humans are the holy ground upon which it falls. Those hovering tongues of flame are like the pillar of fire by which God showed Moses and the Israelites the way through the wilderness. They open a path for the Spirit to enter into each person, empowering all people – regardless of age/gender/status – all people are gifted the capacity to witness and testify to the ways of God in the world.

Pentecost reminds us that no one owns the market on speaking for or about God. Especially when there are so many ways the Spirit reveals the ways of God in the world. And the Spirit reveals the presence of God in the world in diverse ways because we each perceive and connect with the Holy in unique ways. Sometimes our understandings and experiences of God overlap and sometimes different approaches feel foreign and confusing.

When we encounter something new or unfamiliar in life, we pay attention in different kinds of ways. At times we sneer and make assumptions and judgments about things we don’t understand, essentially cutting off an opportunity for connection. Other times we are able to seek and find points of connection, or perhaps even direct translation, and in the process the unfamiliar suddenly becomes exciting and life-giving. The presence of the Holy Spirit transcends differences, finding ways for people to access and connect with each other and God in the world beyond all barriers.

The Holy likes to make its presence known. The Spirit of Pentecost filled those gathered with the gift of diverse languages so that its revelations about the marvels of God could be encountered by many different people. The Spirit continues to make God’s presence known in the world. Not always through grand entrances of wind and flame – sometimes in more subtle ways like affirmations of presence and comfort – which can be just as earth shaking in our experience of them. Or perhaps through connections revealed to us through unexpected sources that transcend the more formal language of words – through languages such as math, science, music, art, poetry, and play. The Spirit knows no bounds in offering unique opportunities for encounters with God.

And the Spirit doesn’t just reveal God in the world, the Spirit invites us into the work of God in the world. Those gathered together received the capacity to witness the wonders of God in the world for themselves and they were moved to action to share those wonders with others. The Spirit continues to invite the participation of people in God’s work in the world and, at the same time, Pentecost also reminds us that sometimes the work of the Spirit is not in what we say or do – sometimes it’s in the hearing – the receiving – of revelations of the Holy offered to us through the witness and experiences of others who are willing to share their encounters and understandings of God with us. The Spirit of Pentecost is about active presence. It is a presence that fills us with the capacity to experience God in the world, invites us to share those experiences with others as a rippling revelation, while remaining open to receiving the wisdom that others also have to offer from their own encounters.

Pentecost is a celebration of collective wisdom and connection. The Anabaptist World publication recently reported that last year on Pentecost, poet Shari Wagner asked the congregation of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis to consider the Holy Spirit and offer imagery from their own experiences of the Holy to the community for a collaborative poem celebrating the diversity of the Spirit.

Each person was given an index card that read:  “The Holy Spirit is like…”

On that card they were invited to finish the sentence with a simile, a comparison, or word picture, based on their own encounters with the Spirit. Some of the descriptions received were:

“The Holy Spirit is like the River Ganges, giving life to vegetation, wildlife, domestic animals and people, joining high mountain, fertile plain and deep ocean.”

“The Holy Spirit is like static – bristling in my ears, waking me up to live another day – doing, loving, seeing!”

“The Holy Spirit is like a weighted blanket surrounding me with calm.”

“The Holy Spirit is like the iridescence that transforms color from flat monochrome to shimmering.”

Shari Wagner’s work as poet was to take all of the offerings and edit them into a cohesive poem, entitled Come, Holy Spirit. Here is the first stanza of that piece:

Come, Holy Spirit,

like a hummingbird

to surprise us!

Like a breath of wind

stirring the forest.

Like lightning’s


Now, I am not going to read that entire poem for you here – it can be found in Anabaptist World or I can pass it along if you are interested. Instead of lingering on that community’s collaboration – I want to take a few moments to honor the Spirit of Pentecost in this gathered body. I want to make space for us to practice sharing and receiving the diverse wisdom and experiences of the Spirit that are present in this community. And so I invite you now to consider the Spirit…and what it is you have experienced and understand of the Holy Spirit by creating a brief response to the same phrase:

The Holy Spirit is like…

I invite you to expand your imagination as you consider how you have experienced the movement of the Spirit – and if you are willing – consider sharing your words with the community. If you choose to share, I’ll bring the mic of the flaming tongue to you and you can briefly share your insight to expand the phrase:

The Holy Spirit is like…

On this day of Pentecost may we open ourselves to the ongoing outpouring of the Spirit – may it remind us of God’s presence in each moment and awaken our curiosity to consider the wonders of the Holy within and surrounding all things.